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Local Artist’s Drawings Help Solve Crimes

You’ve probably seen crime shows like CSI and America’s Most Wanted, where artists work with victims to create a drawing that helps identify a criminal.

This job is performed by a forensic illustrator.  If you’ve seen one of these drawings on the news in Kansas City, then you’ve seen the work of artist and author Lee Hammond, who lives in Overland Park.

As part of our Odd Job Series, KCUR’s Suzanne Hogan met up with Lee to look at how using memories, the face of a suspect or victim can come to shape.

A day can change quickly for artist Lee Hammond.  She’s been working on call for the Kansas City Police Department for over 30 years. She says you never know when you’ll get the call to come in and help solve a case.

Using a pencil and paper with the help of facial identification books, which are filled with pages of examples of different physical characteristics, Lee sits down with victims or witnesses to try to turn a memory into a composite drawing. 

“Everybody thinks, 'Oh I couldn’t describe my own mother,'” says Lee.  “But when you compare it to pictures, you know when it’s right and you know when it’s not right. So through process of elimination it almost gets exciting and fun, and they kind of forget what they went through, and it’s almost like a different situation.

Lee’s been doing this for a long time and she says that there is one major common misconception about this line of work. 

She says:

“When they see the drawing and they see the mug shot of the person that we’ve apprehended, you know, if it doesn’t look identical to the guy, they think it wasn’t a good composite. Well, it’s never designed to be a portrait of one person.”

A composite drawing is supposed to represent a grouping of facial characteristics to create a category that helps police officers narrow a search.  

Working as a forensic artist is only one small part of what Lee does for work. She authors drawing instructional books, does motivational speaking and also works as an art teacher in her home studio in Overland Park. Today four women are chatting and working on paintings of their grandchildren and forest landscapes.  It’s a stark contrast from a crime investigation.    

“I can feel myself changing,” says Lee.  “From the person that I am in this room that’s kind of goofy and all over the place with my students. And then I get called, and I get in the car, and I start driving, and I can feel this change coming up over me where I’m straightening up and I’m getting more firm… By the time I park my car I morph into this forensic investigator, if you will, as opposed to just an art teacher.”

Art has always been a part of Lee’s life, but before she was an art teacher or did forensic art, she had hopes of going into law enforcement. She worked the late night shift for the Lincoln Police Department and was preparing for the academy. Sometimes she would bring in outside art projects to help pass the time during the long boring shifts. Other officers there were also super bored, and while watching Lee draw they decided to make up a game.

“They would come in and pick out the ugliest people from their mug files and they would describe them to me,” Lee recalls. “And for some reason it came easy to me, and I was like spot on.  And it became I’d draw the ugly mug shot every night.”

And the practice from this game paid off in a very real way. One day the Day Lieutenant called her in to do a composite for an abduction case.  She was nervous but did it anyway, and the composite looked so much like the suspect that the next day his own wife called him in to turn him in.

From that point on they decided not to send Lee to the Academy, but instead to Smith and Wesson forensic training.  There she learned about the facial anatomy of different races, interview techniques, how to make sketches after a body has started to decompose, age progression, and some psychology.   It’s a combination of art skills and people skills.

She says building a repoire is key to the process:

“Especially with rape cases or especially women, they are a lot more at ease with me than some six-foot-five burly cop that’s sitting there doing the interview. So they’ll tell me things that they wouldn’t tell someone like that.”

Lee has worked for America’s Most Wanted and has worked on memorable local cases including the Ali Kemp murder case and Precious Doe.

Like any profession that deals with violence and trauma, it can have its emotional challenges in hand with the technical.  With more and more departments using computer programs, finding someone like Lee who does composites by hand is becoming more rare. She says computer programs are better than nothing, but she still believes that a personal hands-on approach leads to more accurate results, which make the job that much more rewarding.  Lee’s accuracy record for identifying victims and suspects in cases is 100 percent.

This story was produced for KC Currents, which airs Sundays at 5pm with a repeat Mondays at 8pm. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KCCurrents podcast.

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